Worldy sounds

Acclaimed English musician, manager and producer Ben Mandelson speaks about his early days in Liverpool and his subsequent foray into world music.

Ben Mandelson (photo credit: LUISE MUELLER)
Ben Mandelson
(photo credit: LUISE MUELLER)
The recent fourth edition of the annual Jazz and World Music International Showcase brought an impressive bunch of music festival directors and other leading figures of the global music community to these parts.
One of the most highly qualified of the group was Ben Mandelson. The 61-year-old Jewish Liverpudlian is a seasoned member of the global rock and world music scene, as a multi-instrumentalist of four decades’ standing, a record producer and also as the founding director of WOMEX.
The latter is one the world’s leading world music showcase vehicles, based in Berlin, which holds a trade fair, showcases, conferences, film screenings, networking sessions and awards at different locations throughout Europe. So, it was quite a feather in the Israeli showcase artistic director Barak Weiss’s cap to have Mandelson here.
The man clearly takes his music seriously and as a member of the jury that picked the acts which performed in last month’s Israeli event, he spared no effort in checking out the three hundred-plus candidates.
“I listened to all of them,” he declares, adding that his WOMEX role is even more demanding. “I listen to about 860 bands for that. That’s a lot.”
How does he manage to clear his head, and differentiate between them all? “I don’t know. I think you get into a sort of Zen [space] and you try to be equal, which means that you can’t get sidetracked. You have to look at the photograph, look at the press release, check the lineup, check the band, listen, think, can you imagine them on a small stage or a big stage, and can you imagine them following the band that’s just been on. You kind of put your mind into it.”
Sounds straightforward enough.
Most would probably start and end with the music of the act in question which, at the end of the day, surely is what it’s all about. But Mandelson takes a more holistic approach.
“I try and get the complete package,” hey says, “because WOMEX is a professional event for professionals, and therefore the artists are there to showcase themselves.
They are not there just to give a concert, but to present themselves. So the first thing you check is how they present themselves.”
The man has a point.
If that sounds a mite on the Sisyphean side, for Mandelson all the above is simply a labor of love.
“I quite like music,” he declares with typical British understatement, “so I want to hear something that tickles my ears.”
Mandelson has been persistently searching for that aural stimulation for a long time now, and shows no signs of slowing down.
“Every year there’s always good stuff,” he exclaims. “The best thing is when you see on the stage a band about whom you may have had some doubts, and they completely blow you away. I think that’s better than having coming across a band you know is great, and they are guaranteed [to be good].
There’s that great feeling of seeing someone, when you thought ‘I’m not sure,’ and then you suddenly realize that now’s their time.”
Mind you, it’s not that the Brit doesn’t have his weary moments.
“I feel jaded a lot – speaking as a pessimistic Jew,” he adds with a laugh.
In terms of his own musical evolution, Mandelson was born in the right place at the right time. Naturally, the Beatles were a sizeable – local – presence in his formative years, as were the folk-based efforts of such bands as The Pentangle. It wasn’t long before the youngster began putting his own artistic ideas out there.
“I played in folk clubs around Liverpool when I was a teenager,” he recalls. “I was a guitarist back then, and have very much gotten back to that today.”
Besides the Fab Four, Liverpool had plenty of “extraneous” sounds to offer a youngster thirsty for new vibes and cultural offerings.
“There was, and there still is, a very large African, primarily West African, and Somali community there, and they all had clubs, and dance clubs. There was quite a lot of African music going on in Liverpool, as a sea port.”
So, Mandelson managed a seamless transition from the Beatles straight to African music? That sounds quite a stretch.
“That went via folk music. I got into African music through listening to a Congolese guitar player called Jean Bosco Mwenda, who was recorded by a very famous anthropologist, ethnomusicologist and educator and recorder called Hugh Tracey.”
The latter gent was a British researcher who captured the sounds of ethnic musicians around Africa, from the early 1920s and up to the 1970s. Tracey introduced many people in the Western world to the wonders of African music, and his recordings left an enduring impression on the young Mandelson.
“Tracey’s recordings of Jean Bosco Mwenda from the late 1940s were picked up far beyond his constituency,” says Mandelson.
“I heard the music on the radio, and fell in love with it.”
Later Mandelson gained some firsthand experience when he spent time in Kenya and, after returning to Britain, he began playing with a Ghanaian band and Mandelson’s career die was well and truly cast.
Mandelson’s long and winding pathway through the mysteries of music also took in rock and even punk rock which, surprisingly, Mandelson equates with folk music.
“When I hear the early [Sex] Pistols I realize what English folk music really is. If you listen to the voices – especially Johnny Lydon [aka Sex Pistols front-man Johnny Rotten] – he has a fantastic English folk country singing musical voice.”
Mandelson evidently maintains a rare openness, and an all-embracing approach to music. There are few who would associate the acerbic vocal outpourings of Lydon with the far gentler sounds of traditional English folk music.
Over the last three-plus decades Mandelson has performed on a wide range of western and other instruments, including guitar, melodeon, the Turkish bouzouki and baglama, as well as designing his own hybrid musical apparatus. He keeps his performing chops in good shape as a member of longstanding world music cult band 3 Mustaphas 3, and also plays in renowned British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg’s The Blokes band.
Mandelson is clearly a man of the world.